“With great power comes great responsibility.” Whether or not Louis Theroux has great power is maybe up for debate, but he is certainly an influential and respected figure. You only need read the reactions on social media to any announcement of, or feedback to any of his documentaries to know that he is both highly respected and revered by millions across the world. I include myself amongst his admirers. Indeed, I’ve spent many hours watching his in-depth look both into the lives of the rich & famous and tackling the dark worlds of subjects such as alcoholism and America’s gun culture. His unique method of engaging with the contributors, of gently exploring underneath the shell of the issue to pull out often difficult stories of why they lead the lives they do, is both skilful and, in some ways, really quite endearing. From a viewers perspective you can’t help but feel like you’d want him as a friend, a confidant, someone with whom you would run to if you were ever in need of a shoulder to cry on, not because he would necessarily have the answers but because you know he’d ask the right questions and would listen.
So, you can understand why when, in March this year, I was contacted and asked if I would be interested in taking part in a documentary in which Louis would explore the mysteries surrounding anorexia, I readily agreed. It would be an opportunity for me to fulfil two things. First, as someone who is passionate about showing that anorexia can affect anyone, regardless of gender, age, background, sexual orientation, and equally as passionate about ensuring that nobody ever gets to where I am now and seeks help at the earliest possible opportunity, I knew that I would get a chance to lend my voice and tell my story to an audience potentially far greater than most other documentaries that had been made to date. Secondly, it would be a chance to meet Louis Theroux. If you’re an admirer of his and the opportunity comes to take part in his work and you’re willing you’re going to want to do it, right? Let me make this abundantly clear however, the first part is the most important. It was never about getting my face on the TV, there are much nicer ways of doing that and anorexia is not something I want to be known for (quite frankly it can get stuffed). However, I would do anything I can to stop someone who is heading this way in their tracks and to seek help, and that was my sole intent in agreeing to do it. Meeting Louis was the “nice bonus.”
Between March and July I met and had discussions with the producers who explored more about how anorexia had & is affecting me and what would happen when Louis came and filmed. When that day eventually came it was what you would expect from a viewers perspective, however being the subject was very hard. Nothing quite prepares you for the reality of how Louis does things. There’s no secret way he does it, it’s all as you see it on TV, but it really can break you down in the moment. My interview largely centred around me engaging in something I do a lot – baking. I made Louis & the crew flapjack whilst he interviewed me, asking me about how the illness affects me day to day, how it gradually became a feature of my life, what influences allowed it to take hold of me, what I felt I had lost materially and otherwise. My mum was also included and he asked her about the changes in me and how the impact of anorexia had affected relationships within the family. There were some tough scenes including one when the illness itself stepped in and made me “jittery,” reminding me that I should be taking laxatives and an emotional discussion took place with Louis almost trying to talk me out of it, me breaking down in tears and, in the end, me taking them anyway. Maybe it’s a good thing that wasn’t shown in the end (I’m coming to that), although maybe it should have been – seeing the power of anorexia in its most raw form. There were some lighter moments too. As Louis tucked into a large piece of the finished flapjack he said that I should go on “Bake Off” (I really want to do this people, I’ve just applied!) and we had a good giggle about that. It wasn’t all dark.
As those of you that watched the documentary tonight will know (Louis Theroux: Talking To Anorexia) this was cut from it. I had already been told that this would be the case. They like to do follow up interviews and check on progress and logistically it wasn’t feasible for them. In fact, the documentary featured 4 women staying in 2 eating disorders units in London, entirely not representative of the fact that anorexia (or ANY eating disorder) can affect ANYONE regardless of all the things I mentioned above. I also knew that this would be the case and had already been quite upset. I was upset at being left out without there being any men included and I was upset that I’d laid myself bare to Louis & the production team on camera and didn’t get the chance to do what I set out to, to hopefully make a difference to at least one person’s life, to stop someone ever getting to the point where their entire existence is determined by what goes on in their head at the hands of this illness. It was so important to me that everyone that COULD be affected by this monstrous illness was represented and I really felt, having been part of it, that they would be. That was as important to me as helping to stop anyone getting to where I am. I’m so disappointed that arguably one of the most influential documentary makers in the world has omitted the voices of a true representation of the indiscriminate power that anorexia has, especially as I vocalised how important I felt that was. For me he’s dropped the ball for once, and it’s a great shame.
On the plus side I do believe that they’ve captured some of the true hell that this illness dishes out. The inner conflict, the power it has, how it refuses to let go of its victims and, ultimately, all it wants to do is kill you. If we’re all honest with ourselves, or allow logic in, we know this. But it silences logic all the time – we must do what it tells us, it thrives on our fears. That very fear of letting go of it, of recovery, is what keeps us enslaved. For many recovery comes, for too many it doesn’t. Louis has done well to show why we are as we are and for that I respect what he’s shown. But I can’t get away from the fact that there still should have been a wider representation of the type of people it can affect, i.e. anyone. We spent the time, we had the material, it should have been used.
Don’t get me wrong, one mistake doesn’t change my view. I still think Louis Theroux is a great man, a great documentary maker and I still admire him immensely. The producers have promised to send me a DVD of our interview which is good, I hope that one day I’ll be able to watch it from a place where I have control over my illness as a reminder of where never to go back to. I say control because, as I’ve said in the past, I know that I will never be fully rid of this. But I have hope that maybe, just maybe, I’ll get help one day (if the eating disorders team ever change their mind and actually help me) and find a way to control things.
Sadly, I’ve taken a hit over all this. Anorexia, by it’s nature, will always seize an opportunity.
“They didn’t think you looked ill enough. You weren’t in hospital so they didn’t take you seriously enough. You’re too heavy. Do something about it.”
That’s what anorexia tells me since I took the call just over a week ago. Not anyone’s fault, that’s the nature of this beast, this illness.
I’ve lost just over half a stone since taking that call.
Anorexia. That’s the true voice, right there.
There has always been a need for mental health issues to gain greater media coverage to ensure wider understanding and breaking of associated stigmas. Thankfully, over the past few months, there have been a number of high profile campaigns to ensure this has happened, and I’m glad to see that on the subject of eating disorders there have been a few stories run. I myself have been both the subject and included in a few of these stories, and have always agreed to do them for that purpose; to help educate and encourage anyone suffering who hasn’t already got help to do so.
Tomorrow (24th July), BBC Panorama will be broadcasting a programme called ‘Men, Boys, Eating Disorders’ featuring international rugby referee Nigel Owens, MBE. Nigel has been struggling with bulimia for the past 27 years and will tell his story and meet other sufferers throughout the programme. Some of his story has been published today on the BBC news website and can be read here.
I’m full of admiration for Nigel for sharing his story in such a public way, especially in view of his profile, and really hope that this will do exactly what is needed – both educate and inspire those who are suffering in silence to get help. Also, as a man, I hope that it will again show that eating disorders don’t discriminate. They aren’t confined to teenage girls, they can affect anyone regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation, colour of skin or whatever. They are real, legitimate, debilitating and vile illnesses that destroy lives. I urge anyone that can to watch the programme and really try to understand what sufferers go through, as hard as I know it is to understand.
Of course, media attention and understanding of these matters are only one part of a wider issue. The focus needs to continue, and the media coverage needs to maintain in order for people to continue to be educated and inspired to get help. However, in order to get the help needed there needs to be the support services and right treatment available. As I said in my last blog post I have withdrawn from social media in terms of posting about my illness and I’ve stuck to it. I have continued to use it for posting about everyday things, but on the subject of my own health I have said nothing, even when asked. The truth is I continue to be very unwell. Anorexia is grinding me down, depression has crept in and I’m heading toward my lowest weight at any point since I was diagnosed. All eating disorder support that was previously there has now been withdrawn.
As I discussed in that last blog post the ultimatum was day treatment or a “therapeutic break.” As I said then I know in honesty day treatment would cause me far more damage than good and that I’m honest enough with myself to know exactly what I need. However, the commissioners won’t allow it, the NHS cuts being such that the money and options aren’t there, and so I’m without the help I need. Where this will end I don’t know (sorry, I’m repeating myself) but I’m numb to the worry of it. I’m a hamster in a wheel, days are all the same, anorexia has become the larger part of me and I haven’t got the treatment options open to me to help me to fight it.
I don’t believe this is the case for all, however. I think this is a case of a ‘postcode lottery’ and that because Gloucestershire has the day treatment option it’s something that has to be tried first. Truth is I have, it’s just that they insist I try again, ignoring my own thoughts on the subject. There has to be flexibility, they just won’t budge. There’s enough of my mind intact to know what’s damaging and not in terms of treatment. C’est la vie. In other areas of the country I know that treatment options are a lot better for people. Don’t be put off by what’s going on for me – GET THE HELP YOU NEED as soon as you can and be forceful. Meanwhile we must push government for more funding into the NHS for mental health care. Nobody should be held back from options based on where they live, nobody should have anything but the full range of options open to them and EVERYONE should have a voice in their treatment.